From Bad To Beautiful
Taking Risks For A Better Life
On our recent trip to South America, I was blessed to be able speak with Giovanni Cambizaca of Cuenca, Ecuador. Cambizaca was born in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in an area where there were just three or four houses and from where it took his parent’s two days to walk to the closest little town. His father named the neighborhood, which has since grown to 15 houses, Victoria for victory.
Eventually, his family moved to a small village with a population of 3,000-4,000, because there was no school is this part of the rain forest. The young boy and his brothers and sister had to help the parents with the work on their plantation where they grew tomatoes and naranjilla.
“I wanted my time to be a kid,” he says. “One day when I was about ten years old, I was running in the weeds when walking to the farm and I fell and hurt my leg. My father said I couldn’t go to the farm for a while and said I had to stay in the house and cook and clean.”
The young boy had no idea how to cook, but soon was butchering and dressing live chickens. Every day his parents came home from the farm to a clean house and a warm meal.
“I decided I liked to cook and clean.”
At about this time, his father took the ten-year old boy and his two brothers to Cuenca, Ecuador for a little vacation. The young boy was awestruck when he arrived in the city of 400,000, as he had had no television and hadn’t known what to expect. Here he learned that cooking was a profession.
“I decided I would like to live in the city when I grew up.”
After graduating from high school, the young man moved to Cuenca to study law, but dropped out after two years, when he realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his working years. He found a job in a hotel restaurant as a server, after convincing the person who was hiring to give him a chance. He was fascinated with what took place in the kitchen, learned about the courses that made up a meal and was exposed to desserts for the first time, something he had never known while living in the jungle. He liked the new restaurants.
“I thought ‘I kind of like this world.’ It was like a fever.”
His mother had learned to cook from her mother and would prepare the carrots, onions, corn, plantains, yuca and herbs from her garden and rice, fish, chicken and wild game the brothers and their father brought home when they went hunting.
She, also, prepared the fish that were caught in the river. They raised cuy (guinea pigs), which are considered a delicacy in Latin America, cows, rabbits, pigs and chickens.
“She grilled the cuy and rabbits and made stew from the chicken. Sometimes she got a little bit of food from the store, like canned tuna.”
The cow was used for milk and cheese and the calves were sold for money to help with the expenses of raising a family.
“While I was working in a bar, in 1998, the economy broke. I thought I wouldn’t have a house and would (still) be renting in two years, so I decided to go to the US.”
He left his wife and two children and started a journey to New York City, where his sister had been living. He paid a coyote, a person who smuggles migrants across the border.
This was an experience that changed his future, but almost ended his life. The long arduous journey through Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico took two months.
He traveled in a compartment built under the large truck with 14 other people for 20 hours and he found himself in jail three times and was held as a hostage by “bad” police, not the immigration police.
“They would hunt immigrants and call their families looking for money and kill them, if they did not get it. My sister paid the money,” said Cambizaca. “It was the worst thing in my life. I was shaking all of the time. It was very bad. I said ‘why am I here?'”
The immigration police caught them when they crossed the border at New Mexico.
“They stopped the van at 2 a.m. and asked for our papers.”
He did not want to go back to Ecuador. He prayed and then decided he was used to running in the Amazon to hunt animals and he could outrun the police.
He told his younger brother, who had made the grueling trip with him, if he couldn’t keep up with him to stay behind.
As the others were walking to the police bus, Giovanni started running by the light of the moon without stopping for two hours.
“I was cold and tired. I just sat by some tree waiting for the sun to come up. I was always praying. I called my sister, Gladys, with a phone I had taken from the coyote, and told her I didn’t know where I was.”
He described the signs he could see. Gladys called the coyote with the clues to her brother’s whereabouts.
“The coyotes are everywhere.”
The foreigner apologized for startling a man who was walking his dog and then walked away. As he crossed the avenue, a coyote drove by, turned around and came back for him. The man told him he had been looking for him for two hours and then took him to his home to feed him. Sometime after this, the illegal immigrant taken to New York City.
“I saw the steam coming out of the street and said ‘oh, my God, this is scary.’ I told the coyote not to leave me alone until my sister comes. She didn’t recognize me with whiskers and I was skinny.”
Gladys found a painting job for her brother, but he didn’t like New York City and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he had a few friends. He was able to get a driver’s license by showing his license from Ecuador. He applied for a waiter job, but the restaurant only had a cook’s position open. The woman who interviewed him asked if he could cook and he told her he was a professional cook. She asked what his situation was with papers and he responded, “I don’t know.” She sent him away.
His friend took him to a man who sold him the paperwork he needed for $50.00. He returned to the restaurant the next day, showed the woman the paper, while telling her he didn’t understand what she was asking at their first meeting. He was told to report on Friday, when he was put on the grill.
“The tickets started to come. I couldn’t speak English. The chef started calling tickets. ‘Give me steak medium-well. Give me fish. Give me fries.”
At one point, he started to scrape the dirty grill with one of the chef’s knives.
“The chef told me ‘You are crazy! You don’t know what you are doing. Do you know what this knife cost? He took me outside and told me he would hire me. I think he saw something in me.”
The young man trained for three days with a sous chef. About a month later, a lady came into the kitchen and said the lamb steak was cooked perfectly. The newly trained cook learned this lady was the owner.
“I saw beautiful salads, pates, duck confit, French cuisine, beautiful things. I asked to learn to do more things. I worked with two of the restaurant’s chefs, but then I wanted to learn more. I would ask the chefs what they needed for the next day and then I would prep it. My English was getting better.”
After six months a new sous chef was hired, but did not work out. One of the chefs decided to take a risk and put Giovanni in the position.
“I had to be an expeditor and had to tell the servers what the specials were. It was a disaster explaining specials in English.”
With help, within two months, the new sous chef was able to describe the specials to the servers.
Cambizaca was taken under Chef Cindy Wolf’s wing, as she allowed him to shadow her for a couple of weeks. Wolf, the owner of Le Petit Louis and several other restaurants, has won major awards, was praised by Julia Child, was a guest chef at the White House and says cooking is art for her. Even though she was the owner, she spent most of her time cooking at the other restaurants she owned in Baltimore. She grew up eating in some of the best restaurants as her father was vice president of Hardee’s and later Ponderosa. He would take her on business trips to Chicago. She was eating sweet breads, hearts of palm and smoked salmon at as a child and pre-teen, which helped her develop an understanding of good food and great service.
“She was just amazing. She gave me the chance to be with her for a couple of weeks. I thought ‘oh my God, this is amazing.'”
After five years of living in the United States and being away from his wife and children, he was told a sad story by his wife, Maria Elisa. During a church service, where she had taken their children, the priest asked if anyone wanted special prayer. Their oldest son, then eight years old, went to the front of the church, took the microphone and said, “I want to ask to God that my father come back.”
“When I heard that, I was crying. I asked my sister to find me a ticket to Ecuador. I told Cindy I was going to open a restaurant in Ecuador.”
He taught cooking in Bogata, Colombia and worked in a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador for a few months before returning to his wife and children in Cuenca.
“I didn’t go to (culinary school), but it was the best education. Cindy was amazing. She will always be in my heart.”
The cook had been saving to buy land on the fringes of Cuenca. One day when he was sitting on a rock on the 1,700-square meter parcel, he wondered “Maybe we should own a restaurant.” He sold another piece of land to buy a limited amount of basic building materials, but did not have money for labor. After asking his brother for his help, they set the first stone for the foundation in the rain. He had hoped to have the structure finished in a year.
He collected large rocks from the river for the foundation and the trim and bought logs, from which he removed the bark to prepare for attractive timber beams. The roof went on after six months and after eighteen months they started building the tables and chairs. Because of a limited budget, he found a new hobby in repurposing others’ unwanted items. He has found items in junk yards to make the lamps, ceiling lights, utility racks and decorative pieces he wasn’t able to buy. He has made fancy metal trim for the corners of some of the doorways and has incorporated old sewing machines, which are one of his favorites, engine blocks, wine bottles, bicycle chains and other items into many of his pieces, bringing their beauty to the forefront.
Miraculously, the beautiful structure came together at the hands of two men who had no previous building experience.
“God gave us the talent to do this.”
A spiral staircase, made by the chef, leads to an observation area in the yard outside of the restaurant. A pair of twin lawn chairs made from upturned wheel barrows have been placed near a glass-topped table with a tire incorporated into its design.
He has realized his dream of owning Le Petit Jardin, a French restaurant, which is open only on weekends by his own choosing, because he wants to be with his wife and family and “have time for my life.”
“Always the people ask ‘why are you only open two days.’ I want to prove if you do the job with love, you can work less and have time to be with your family.”
Even though he knows he can never return to the United States, he is not sad for he has been able to take his family to Spain, Italy and France and last year he took his wife to Brazil.
The most beautiful part of this story is about how Giovanni has given back to others.
“I’m trying to give to single mothers from this area by giving them a job to support the family,” says the humble man. “I am teaching them to cook and maybe they can open a restaurant one day.”
The readers of Gringo Post have voted him Best Chef, Best Fine Dining and Best Unique Dining of 2017 and 2018.
The following recipes are served in Giovanni’s Le Petit Jardin Restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador. He wrote them in Spanish with metric measurements. My niece’s husband, who speaks five languages, translated them into English and I converted the measurements.
Trout Rouladen with
Tarragon and Shrimp Sauce
3/4 tsp butter
1/4 c leeks
1/4 c white onions
1 garlic clove
1/4 c plus 2 tsp heavy cream
3/4 c crabmeat
3/4 tsp fresh parsley
6 trout filets
2 c sliced potatoes
1 c red peppers
For crab stuffing, place butter, leeks, onion and garlic in a pan. Caramelize very slowly over slow heat. Add cream, crab meat, a touch of olive oil and parsley. Let cool about 15 minutes.
For Tarragon Sauce
1/4 c leeks, chopped
1/4 c white onions, cut into feathers
2 tsp shallots, chopped
2 tsp butter
1/4 c shrimp
Saute leeks, onions and shallots in butter. Add shrimp until we have a brown color. Add a bit of brandy and cream, a touch of Tabasco and salt and pepper. Cook for about 8 minutes, then add tarragon.
To the trout fillet add a touch of salt and pepper and crab filling. Roll trout in a roll and wrap with a slice of bacon. Put a small amount of butter and olive oil in a pan. Place the trout in an ovenproof pan and cook until bacon is browned. Bake in 200 degree oven for about 7 minutes or until done. In a separate pan, saute potatoes and peppers with a touch of olive oil and salt and pepper. Set in the oven for a few minutes until softened. Makes 6 servings.
Cream of Rostisados
2 1/4 c red peppers, cut in strips
3/4 c white onions, chopped in a feather shape
3/4 c leeks, chopped
1/4 c shallots, chopped
1 T butter
Scant 2 1/4 c heavy cream
1/4 c plus 2 T milk
1/4 c plus 2 T water
1 T Amaretto
2 tsp freshly grated parmesan cheese
dash cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook peppers in a touch of olive and salt to remove the skin. In a pot, place butter, onions, leeks, shallots and peeled peppers. Saute vegetables. Add amaretto, cream, milk, water, a dash of cayenne pepper and salt. Cook very slowly over a low flame for about 15 minutes. Stir in parmesan cheese.